387 “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”

A new friend I have yet to meet, Luca Del Baldo, has done something so far out of the ordinary that I am stunned in amazement. Singlehandedly, with unimaginable dedication and tenacity, he has called into being a 98-person community of people who write about art, painting portraits of each and getting them to put down on paper thoughts on portraiture. Here is Schwartz’s contribution, followed by two recently published articles to be downloaded or requested.


On the 8th of May 2017 I received a once-in-a-lifetime mail from the Italian artist Luca Del Baldo. He invited me to participate in a project called, on the advice of Arthur Danto, The visionary academy of ocular mentality. It was to consist of portraits of and texts by “living important writers, philosophers, art historians and thinkers-theorists,” of whom he dropped the impressive names of about twenty who were already on board. Del Baldo asked me to send him a photograph that he would use to paint a portrait of me for a book edition. The portrait, when he finished it, would be mine to keep. What he asked in return was that I write a brief text for the volume on any aspect of portraiture. As spammy as it sounded, the very madness of the project convinced me that it had to be sincere. And sympathetic.

A few months later I sent him a photo of myself that I liked. It was made in Kassel on the occasion of a lecture on Jheronimus Bosch that I gave there, during a visit to documenta 14, for the gallery-cultural club Kunstbalkon. The photographer was Mike Wilding. With permission of photographer and artist, here is Mike’s photo and the painting Luca made after it. Over a period of a year, he sent me photos of the advancing stage it was in.

The next year I wrote a brief essay for the project. Against all odds, Luca has succeeded in getting his book published. Last week it came out with the prestigious De Gruyter publishers in Berlin. It contains 98 portraits with texts. Luca has allowed me to mount my entry on the Schwartzlist. Here I am able to illustrate the Google screen shots of faces that I submitted with my copy, which De Gruyter did not want to print, out of concern for possible copyright or privacy violations.


Luca Del Baldo’s admission to me that Rembrandt was a favorite artist of his – how could it be otherwise? – inspired me to write a piece on Rembrandt seen in Luca’s perspective, as a painter and draftsman of faces. That idea was in the back of my mind when I went to a screening of Billy Wilder’s film Sunset Boulevard (1950), and the subject took on another twist. As often as I have heard the line before, it now meant that much more to me when I heard Gloria Swanson complain to William Holden about the needless introduction of sound into movies, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” What’s the difference, I found myself thinking, between Rembrandt’s faces, Gloria Swanson’s and Luca Del Baldo’s? They all came into being when an artist contemplated and recorded the human face. What could be a more primal, irreducible act than that? The face of our mother is the first sight we see after birth; we are programmed to be acutely sensitive to the forms and expressions of faces. Surely the depiction of the face must be close to the degré zéro de l’imagerie.

I probably could have built an argument to that effect with some well-chosen examples. However, I decided instead to make use of someone else’s choices, namely those of Google Pictures. The results of this sampling revealed that the depiction of faces is subject to the same kind of artistic and cultural choices as everything else in art, mother bonding or not. On Google, I called up the faces of Gloria Swanson, other stars of the silent film, the talkies, Rembrandt and Luca Del Baldo.

In all of these photos on and off screen, Gloria Swanson is projecting a persona. Some are movie roles, but even in the others, she is putting on a face. If there is a mode in which she is not acting, in which her face assumes an expression of its own, she has been able to keep it out of sight. Strangely, the expression of her film faces does not look any more forced than the snapshots. Great actress that she was, she lived her roles, endowing her characters with all the humanity in her. This possibility alerts us at once to the real existence of not a zero but a maximalist mode of facial depiction: the face as a living mask. (What will Hans Belting say about this in the book on “face and mask” he tells us in this volume he is writing?)

From a sample of silent-movie stars on another Google search, it would seem that Gloria Swanson was an extreme case. The off-screen photos of some others show them in what looks like a natural guise, while the role-playing is more visibly theatrical. Professionalism and personality are more clearly distinguished from each other.

To test Gloria Swanson’s proposition about the redundancy of sound, I brought up a page of movie stars’ faces from the talkie era (“movie stars of the 1930s”). It would seem like her point is well taken. These actors did need dialogue to get their characters and actions across. There appears moreover to be less of a distinction between the studio portraits and the stills from their parts. What they are conveying depended on text and context.

Looking at an assortment of Rembrandt portraits, self-portraits and “tronies” (face paintings), we find ourselves off the scale established by the movie stars. As different from each other as they are, as we would expect from an artist with Rembrandt’s inventivity, they share a common feature: self-contained dignity. This characteristic has been explored by Ann Jensen Adams in her book of 2011 Public faces and private identities in seventeenth-century Holland: portraiture and the production of community.

Faces like these display to the world an emotional calm and a certain degree of detachment. This state was internal and nonresponsive; nevertheless, it portrayed to the seventeenth-century viewer an attribute of personality as important and as specific as those employed by Rembrandt in his portraits of men in active poses. This neo-Stoic state of tranquillitas was achieved through control of the turbulent emotions.

I would go one step further than Adams and say that even Rembrandt’s portraits of men in active poses show them with unexpressive faces. His sitters never smile, let alone laugh. There are no teeth to be seen in Rembrandt portraits.

That is not entirely the case with Luca Del Baldo’s portraits of members of his visionary academy. The photographs provided to Luca by the sitters are in general freer and more expressive than Rembrandt’s faces, close to those studio portraits of Katherine Hepburn and Rita Hayworth, Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable. (If only!) Pre-millennials like them, we are not worried, as Rembrandt’s sitters and he himself were, that it would diminish our dignity to crack a smile. This is not the same thing as expressing our emotions. In Luca’s renditions of our visages we seem actively to be emanating certain character traits, specifically friendliness and approachability. We are freer to present ourselves this way because our status as authorities and intellectuals is already established by being included in the academy.

Which brings me to Gloria Swanson’s conviction that words are not necessary to convey the meaning of an image. She was not alone, nor was the attitude she expresses limited to the movies alone. Walker Evans, at the end of the decade of Sunset Boulevard, in 1959, wrote in an introduction to a book of road-trip photographs by the Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank: “For the thousandth time, it must be said that pictures speak for themselves, wordlessly, visually, or they fail.”

Few art historians would agree with that statement, no matter how many times as it might be said. Our first inclination would be to tell Walker Evans that words cannot be avoided in responses to art, that even when a text is lacking, there is always a context and a subtext, that a work of art is always entangled in more than one discourse, more than one narrative. That would also be my inclination.

But who of us does not understand what Evans means? Do works of visual art not enjoy more than one existence, in the purely optical realm as well as in the overcommentaried culture? And do we not walk past or skip over visually disappointing paintings and photos without stopping to ask what they might mean? To my eye, Luca Del Baldo’s portraits pass that test with ease. They engage us on their own, as a gallery of portraits worthy of contemplation and rumination one by one and as a group. That the sitters then turn out to be people who have lavished words on works of art enriches the experience and rewards the viewer with unexpected possibilities to delve into their ideas and perhaps to seek links between the visages and the views of the members of Luca’s visionary academy, to which I am proud to belong.

© 2020 Gary Schwartz. Published on the Schwartzlist on 16 September 2020. From Luca Del Baldo, The visionary academy of ocular mentality: atlas of the iconic turn, Berlin (De Gruyter) 2020, pp. 356-60


Two other publications of mine came out recently that I would like to share with you.

In February an article in a festschrift for a dear friend of more than half a century, Petra Ten-Doesschate Chu: “The Dreyfus Rembrandts: smoke with no gun,” in Making waves: crosscurrents in the study of 19th-century art, ed. Laurinda S. Dixon and Gabriel P. Weisberg, Turnhout (Brepols) 2020, pp. 31-40. The publisher has not given me permission to post an offprint on the Schwartzlist, but any subscriber can have a pdf for the asking, including an important paragraph that was not added to the last note, despite assurances that it would be.

This week the proceedings were published of a symposium on Jheronimus Bosch’s Last Judgment in the Gemäldegalerie of the Akademie der bildenden Künste in Vienna. The pdf of my contribution can be downloaded: “A Last Judgment to scare the hell out of you,” in Hieronymus Bosch’s Last Judgment triptych in the 1500s: publication of the proceedings of the international conference held from 21–23 November 2019 in the Paintings Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, ed. Julia M. Nauhaus, Vienna (Gemäldegalerie der bildenden Künste) 2020, pp. 149-68.

I can recommend this article if only because it includes a table with more Visions of Tondal based on Bosch imagery than have ever before been gathered. The publishers were unable to include the illustrations, which I hereby reveal to you:

Image | Tondal’s action References

 

In a nearly choreographic movement, Tondal sweeps away, in a long flimsy veil, from a man-eating monster with open jaws.

Unverfehrt 78, dated to the 1520s.

 

Sold at Sotheby’s, New York, on 11 January 1996, lot 187, as a “putative Jan Wellens de Cock.”

Oil on panel, 24.1 x 31.8 cm

rkd.nl/explore/images/26250

 

The naked Tondal looks on as the angel shows him the punishments for the seven deadly sins, labeled in Latin. Captioned VISION TONDALI.

Unverfehrt 81, attributed to the Meister des Visio Tondali, active in Antwerp in the 1520s.

 

On offer in 1961 at the Fischer Gallery, Luzern.

Oil on panel, 23 x 33 cm

Not found online

 

The angel and Tondal, naked, are in a flying halo in the sky, looking down at a hell marked mainly by a wide-jawed monster whose mouth houses a dinner of gluttons.

Unverfehrt 82, attributed to the Meister des Visio Tondali, active in Antwerp in the 1520s.

 

Denver Art Museum (1948.37)

Oil on panel, 55.5 x 71.8 cm

denverartmuseum.org/object/1948.37

rkd.nl/explore/images/59984

 

Punishments partly resembling details from the central panel of the Garden of Earthly Delights take place on, in and around a man-shaped monster. They are shown by the angel to a fully clothed, seated, sleeping Tondal, as in a dream. Inscribed beneath Tondal Visio tondali

Unverfehrt 83, attributed to the Meister des Visio Tondali, active in Antwerp in the 1520s.

 

Madrid, Museo Lazaro Galdiano (02892)

Oil on panel, 53.5 x 72 cm

A good entry available on the museum online catalogue at http://catalogo.museolazarogaldiano.es/
mlgm/search/pages/Main
with search action 02892.

rkd.nl/explore/images/257694

 

Punishments partly resembling details from the central panel of the Garden of Earthly Delights take place on, in and around a man-shaped monster. Tondal, fully clothed, sleeps on the ground, facing away. The angel points to the scene, apparently to Tondal in a dream.

Unverfehrt 84, attributed to the Meister des Visio Tondali, active in Antwerp in the 1520s.

 

Owner unknown, last recorded by Max J. Friedländer in April 1922.

Oil on panel, 53 x 70.5 cm

rkd.nl/explore/images/60905

 

Transported into the right wing of The Garden of Earthly Delights, the naked Tondal has the ghastly punishments being administered there elucidated by the angel. Inscribed VISION TONDALI.

Unverfehrt 150, dated after 1530.

 

Madrid, Museo del Prado, P002054

Oil on panel, 29 x 24 cm

Under cat. nr. 150 Unverfehrt also illustrates a large painting last sold at Bonhams, London, on 3 December 2008, lot 53. The subject is now identified as the rich man Dives and the poor Lazarus in the lap of Abraham. RKD 51984.

At www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/ perform search for Tondal. (The complete url is very long.)

 

Transported into the right wing of The Garden of Earthly Delights, the naked Tondal has the ghastly punishments being administered there elucidated by the angel. Inscribed VISION TONDALI.

Memphis, Tennessee, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art (2012.26.13)

 

Oil on panel, 21.6 x 15.9 cm

rkd.nl/explore/images/287171

 

The naked Tondal is taken by the angel to an infernal realm with features derived from the right wing of the Garden of Earthly Delights.

Porto, Portugal, Fundãçao Maria Isabel Guerra Junqueiro e Luis Pinto Mesquita Carvalho[i]

 

Oil on panel, 44.5 x 50 cm

Panel dated to 1546 or later

http://www.porto.pt/noticias/visao-de-tondale-e-objeto-de-debate

 

In a landscape closer to Joachim Patinir than Bosch, the angel walks a naked Tondal across a narrow bridge.

Owner unknown. Last recorded, by Max J. Friedländer, as in a gallery in Sweden, most likely Bukowski, in 1934.

 

rkd.nl/explore/images/59987

Draped in a flimsy veil, Tondal is moved bodily along a precipice, with view of Boschian buildings behind them. Owner unknown. Last recorded by Max J. Friedländer at an unknown date as with James J. Kelleher, New York, who however as a framemaker may only have had the painting for framing.

 

Oil on panel, dimensions unknown

Attributed alternately to Jan Mandijn and Pieter Buijs.

rkd.nl/explore/images/51971

 

The naked Tondal is dragged across a narrow bridge by the angel. Architecture and figures are a riff on Bosch, without actual quotations.

London, Wellcome Institute (ICV 17734[ii])

 

Oil on panel, 33.5 x 44.5 cm

https://wellcomecollection.org/
works/c3c7b5pa

 

Clad only in a white winding sheet, Tondal is shown an infernal scene of tortures by the angel.

Unverfehrt, reference on p. 223

 

Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (GK 929)

Dated by Unverfehrt to the late 16th century, with few specifically Boschian features.

http://datenbank.museum-kassel.de/32049/

rkd.nl/explore/images/261839

[i] Published by Maria José Goulão, “A Liminal Vision Between Dream and the Afterworld in a ‘Boschian’ Painting on the Margin of Hieronymus Bosch,” in The Centre as Margin: Eccentric Perspectives on Art, ed. Juana Antunes, Maria de Lurdes Craveiro and Carla Alexandra Gonçalves, Wilmington, Delaware (Vernon Press) 2019, pp. 3-20.

[ii] Cited from Marc Rudolf de Vrij, Jheronimus Bosch: An Exercise in Common Sense, Hilversum (M.R.V. Publishers) 2012, p. 587.


To find out what the above is about, click on Gary Schwartz, “A Last Judgment to scare the hell out of you”  


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